Thursday, May 4, 2017

Homebrew of the Month: Juno First

Juno First
Developer: Chris Walton

What's All This Then?

When this game launched it was the biggest thing since sliced bread and it has remained one of the most lauded homebrews in the every growing 2600 library.  Somehow I missed it back then.  I think I was already covered up in some really great shooters, games like Backfire and Seawolf, and I wasn't quite ready to add another one to my rotation.  But the roar of the crowd indicated that I had missed the boat.  So Homebrew of the Month is giving me a chance to make up for lost time and find out what all the cool kids were going on about.

Juno First is a straight-on classic shooter.  The game is just fine without a story behind it, but for those that like to be immersed, the plot is also a classic.  The Earth is under assault and the only thing standing between it and annihilation is you, the Juno Colony.  Just a handful of ships must fend off endless waves of enemy invaders or all is lost.  Jump in the cockpit and go!

As stated, the game is a traditional vertical shooter with your ship at the bottom of the screen and enemy ships pouring in from the top.  Since the action takes place on the surface of a planet, Juno Colony, the screen scrolls the same as in games like Solaris.  This means, based on your speed, you can control the appearance and distance of the enemy ships.  You can slowly scroll and pick them off one or two at a time, or you can try blazing through the ranks taking out as many as you can in the scrum.  The game is broken up into waves, giving you a slight break in the action to collect your wits before you are thrown back into the fray.  Waves are characterized by the variety of ships that appear and the formations they fly in.  Once per wave you have the opportunity to blast an enemy ship and rescue an astronaut.  If you are successful in this, then you enter hyperspace, a brief period when enemy ships cannot fire and you get bonus points for each you destroy.  As you progress, the waves get longer and significantly harder.  The "longer" part of that statement is important because you have a limited amount of fuel per wave with which to eliminate the enemy and there is no refueling.  So you'll need to hone your aim and be prepared to make a few daring sweeps to progress in the higher levels.  And that's it.  That's all you need to know to get going on your first Juno First adventure!

What you'll need to know on your second Juno First adventure is how to be really, really good at shooting games.  Juno First will put all of your shooting prowess to the test, and it will do so quickly. I've been playing this game for a month and I'm lucky to see waves in the double digits.  I'm not the world's greatest shooter player, but I'm far from a slouch, and this game is tough.  My Achille's heel is the ability to control the scroll.  It takes everything I have to resist the urge to just plow through the enemy waves blasting like the Kool-Aid man on his way to a parched picnic.  Because that's where the fun is, right?  Zooming through space, blowing away aliens left and right, racking up huge points.  But in Juno First, that is the recipe for disaster and an early Game Over.  This is the kind of shooter where the action is going to be frantic, no matter how fast you fly through it, so take your time and make every shot count.  Of course, don't take too much time, because that fuel meter is counting down, but don't think you can just zip your way through this game like it's Space Jockey.

How's it Play?

But is it any fun?  Sometimes games that are very simple can be brutally difficult and that can easily suck the fun right out.  Fortunately, Juno First has earned it's reputation as being one of the top shooters, and maybe homebrews, for the Atari 2600.  The game is fun.  Lots of fun.  And it definitely has bucket loads of "just one more game" appeal.  When you first start playing it's a lot of fun to see what the next wave has in store for you. As you get better and better the challenge becomes clearing waves in record time and scoring as many points as possible during hypespace.  But no matter what skill level you possess there is a lot here to like.  Best of all, the game is totally pick-up-and-play, so even novice gamers can jump right in and enjoy the fun.

Whistles and Bells

Juno First features top notch graphics for the VCS.  Crisp and clean sprites for the player and enemy ships and scrolling horizon lines give the game sleek look.  The scoring and fuel displays are unobtrusive and easy to read.  Juno First features a swanky title screen that lists the scoring table for enemy ships, reminiscent of classic arcade games.  There are two modes for firing: autofire and rapidfire.  Autofire is fairly self-explanatory, Rapidfire allows you to shoot much faster, but requires a recharge every five shots to allow your laser cannon to cool off.  I prefer the autofire, but I'm willing to bet there is a trick to using the rapidfire to really tally up the bananas.  Juno First also allows you to continue at the level in which you perished.  This can be helpful at higher levels, giving you a chance to practice before your next scoring run.  Finally, Juno First is one of the those fancy games that takes advantage of AtariVox and SaveKey features so you can save your high scores and hear some "chatter" from the alien ships. These are really sweet features that truly move VCS games into the modern era.  Juno First also features a nice, full color manual with art by Dave Dries.

Final Assessment

Juno First truly belongs in every Atari 2600 fan's library.  It's a pure shooter with lots of action, challenge, and replayability.  The difficulty isn't so great that novice players will be discouraged and it ramps at a good pace for more advanced players.  I foresee it getting a lot of play in the future in my house.  I can strongly recommend this game to pretty much anyone who likes shooting games and it might even convert a few who don't.

Tips and Tricks

I wish I had more to give you in this department, but honestly I still feel like an amateur.  So here's what I can tell you thus far:

Don't Waste Hyperspace.  It can be easy to get busy blasting aliens and forget to rescue that astronaut. But once he or she scrolls off the screen, your chance at hyperspace goes with him/her.  Make sure you slow down long enough to rescue the astronaut and engage hyperspace.

Hyperspace Clean-Up.  I find that hyperspace is a great opportunity to clean up any stray ships or clear space to get ready for the remainder of the ships in a wave.  I generally speed up a little when in hyperspace so I can take out as many ships as possible, not just for the bonus points, but also for the reasons previously listed.  Hyperspace also gives you a breather because the enemy ships can't shoot.

Slow and Steady.  Really does win the race.  As I said before, trying zoom through will end your game very quickly.  Find a scroll pace that fits your style of play and stick with it.  Don't try to go faster than you can reliably take out enemy ships without crashing.  The fuel gauge is an impending fate, but you are more likely to die from crashing or getting shot than running out of fuel.

Invincible Respawn.  As the manual will tell you, when your ship respawns it will be invulnerable for a few seconds, yet firing will immediately cancel your invincibility.  Take advantage of this brief window to scroll your way to a clear spot before you start blasting away again.  At higher levels the screen gets crowded quickly and this might be your only chance to find a break in the action from which to start fresh.

Stay Sharp!  Higher levels introduce new and more deadly kinds of aliens.  Don't get so consumed with extra-terrestrial carnage that you fail to notice a new kind of baddie that is consistently handing you your butt.  Once things like homing missiles enter the game your strategy is going to need to be tweaked.

So there you have it.  Do you have what it takes to lead the Juno Colony to victory? There's only one way to find out!

See you next month when we'll switch gears completely and have a look at a different kind of VCS game:  Titan Axe!

1 comment: